ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Look at the tag of your shirt or the bottom of your coffee mug and you'll probably see where it was made. Almost everything you buy is stamped with the country of origin. When the U.S. started putting those labels on meat, it sparked a trade dispute with Canada and Mexico. Now it looks like those countries are about to win the fight. Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska reports.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: This fight is kind of about the global future of meat, so I came to see where it started. I'm at the meat aisle in a Russ's Market grocery store in Lincoln, Neb. Stores like this have to put labels on their meat to tell you where it was born, raised and slaughtered. So let's take a look at a good cut of meat here. Here's a - yeah - a package of ribeye steaks. Right there it says product of USA. That's the country-of-origin label. They call it COOL. Actually, these steaks might have come from a feedlot in Nebraska.
Mike Briggs runs a feedyard near the small town of Seward. Some 20,000 calves come through his pens each year, sucking up corn and packing on pounds.
MIKE BRIGGS: They're pretty close to needing to catch a ride. I would say they'll be out of here in the next 30 days.
GERLOCK: Briggs says these days he's not just competing against feedlots in Kansas or Texas. To make hamburger, he says meatpackers import lean beef from Brazil and Canada to mix with fat trimmings from the U.S.
BRIGGS: More meat into the country is more meat into the country. That's that much less they bought from us.
GERLOCK: Canadian and Mexican cattle producers benefit from the blurring borders of the beef industry. But they say country-of-origin labels make it more difficult for them to sell meat in America. so Canada went to the World Trade Organization. Konstantino Giannakas is an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He says Canada argued that origin labels are discriminatory.
KONSTANTINO GIANNAKAS: Does it discriminate? Yes, but we discriminate because we choose a quality that fits our interests and I cannot how this is unethical or unfair or illegal.
GERLOCK: But the WTO disagreed, and last week, it said Canada and Mexico can charge American businesses a billion dollars in tariffs. Many in Congress say they're tired of fighting with America's top trading partner. Here's Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas - another top cattle feeding state - speaking before the Senate in July.
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PAT ROBERTS: It doesn't matter if you support COOL or if you oppose COOL. You cannot ignore the fact that retaliation is imminent and that we must avoid it.
GERLOCK: And the retaliation is not just against beef. Roberts read a list of other industries facing tariffs.
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ROBERTS: Wine, orange juice, jewelry, even mattresses.
GERLOCK: Those industries won't stand up for beef and that puts more pressure on Congress. Repeal of COOL is attached to the omnibus spending bill. If the labels go away, imported meat won't be any less safe. All meat coming into the country is subject to inspection by the USDA. This is really about competition. The reaction in the beef industry is divided. Cattlemen like Jim Dinklage of Nebraska want to keep the labeling. He says without it, global meat companies find it easier to cut American ranchers out of the loop.
JIM DINKLAGE: They're importing meat from Brazil and it will go the same way as the textile industry.
GERLOCK: But Mike Briggs who runs that big feedlot doesn't think labels are actually helping. Packers spend millions to keep animals separate for labeling, but he says not enough shoppers are buying meat based on labeling to make it pay.
BRIGGS: And if he's not going to get paid for it, we're not going to get paid for it. And all that - all that financial pressure always slides down and ends up in the feedyard's lap or the rancher's lap.
GERLOCK: Some Senate Democrats are now pushing for voluntary country-of-origin labels. But America's neighbors say they will only stop the tariffs if labels on meat are repealed. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.
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